Update: The Jupp Wiertz circa 1935 travel poster featuring the Hindenburg sold for $6,000.
What you see:A Pleasant Trip to Germany, a 1930s German travel poster created circa 1935 by Jupp Wiertz. Swann estimates its at $4,000 to $6,000.
Who was Jupp Wiertz? He was a German graphic designer, and unfortunately, we don’t know much more about him. He was based in Berlin, and he created several travel and fashion-themed posters. He died in 1939, when he would have been 57 or 58.
So we have three different forms of transportation (a zeppelin, an airplane, and an ocean liner) and three different destinations (Germany, New York City, and Rio) loaded into this 1930s German travel poster. Why? “This is propaganda–Germany controlling the skies and the seas, flaunting its technology and bragging about its place in the modern world,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries. “It’s a very effective ad, in that sense.”
How do we know that the zeppelin pictured on the 1930s German travel poster is the Hindenburg? “You can tell by the position of the cockpit,” he says. “On the Graf Zeppelin, it’s all the way forward. On the Hindenburg, its three-quarters of the way down [the body of the airship].”
Do vintage travel posters that feature zeppelins bring a premium? “Zeppelins bring a premium. Swastikas bring whatever is the opposite of a premium,” Lowry says, adding that the most popular zeppelin travel poster was also done by Wiertz. It shows the Hindenburg readying to hitch itself to the docking mast atop the Empire State Building, which is ablaze with golden sunlight. Swann has sold the poster for as much as $15,600.
What else makes this 1930s German travel poster special? “It’s the peak of Art Deco. Though the ship is unrecognizable, the Art Deco style is very recognizable,” he says. “Plus the ghostly outline of the cityscapes–it’s really a masterful job. It’s fun to have something from the golden age of travel and fun to have something from the very short timespan when zeppelins were operating. They were as captivating to the world’s imagination as the Titanic was in its time.”
Update: The Tadanori Yokoo poster sold for $4,250.
What you see:Word Image, a poster designed by Tadanori Yokoo for a 1968 show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $4,000 to $6,000.
Who is Tadanori Yokoo? He is a Japanese graphic artist and painter who has been compared to Andy Warhol and Peter Max. The 1968 MoMA exhibition poster represents one of his few American commissions. He will turn 81 in June.
What was Word and Image? “This was one of the first really major international poster shows,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Galleries. “For us, it was a seminal exhibit, and by us, I mean the poster community.”
Why was Yokoo chosen to create the poster for this MoMA show? While stating that he is unaware of the backstory, Lowry points out, “He was an up-and-coming artist. No one was going to say, ‘Oh, you’re going with the easy standard.’ This was something new. And this was the first mainstream poster he did. In three years, he went from an unknown artist to designing the image for the first major poster retrospective in the U.S.”
What makes this Tadanori Yokoo poster so strong? “It works in the manner that it’s supposed to do–it catches your attention,” Lowry says. “As you walk down the street, it sinks into your head and embeds in your cortex as you pass by. The poster screams at you till you hear it with your eyes. That’s exactly what it does. It’s a great, great poster.”
What other aspects make Word Image work? “What you can’t tell is those are Day-Glo colors–bright pink, bright red, bright blue,” Lowry says. “And he is visually literalizing the name of the show–‘word’ with mouth, and ‘image’ with eye. The message speaks for itself. The only typography is the title at the top and the details at the bottom.”
How rare is this Tadanori Yokoo poster? It’s not rare, but it’s not common, either. Lowry says that Yokoo’s Word Image poster took off at auction only after a 1965 Yokoo poster unexpectedly pulled in $52,800 against an estimate of $6,000 to $9,000 at a Swann sale in 2013, prompting collectors and dealers to comb through their holdings for vintage Yokoos. Since then, a Word Image poster has appeared at auction at least once a year.
What you see: A matched set of bull mammoth tusks from Alaska that date to the Pleistocene era (which spans about 11,700 years ago to 2.6 million years ago). Heritage Auctions estimates the pair at $150,000 to $250,000.
These tusks come from a bull, or male, mammoth. Did only bull mammoths grow tusks? And how do we know these are from a bull? “The females have tusks, and the juveniles have them too,” says Craig Kissick, director of nature and science for Heritage Auctions. “The consensus is based on size. This pair of tusks has a pronounced horn, with a big curve. Female tusks are straighter and thinner.”
Were they attached to a skull when they were discovered? “These were probably not found with the bone. They were found together, and you can tell by looking that they’re a matched pair,” he says. “It’s a really nice matched pair, with good color and a nice curve. That’s rare.”
How often do matched pairs of mammoth tusks come to market? “They’re much less common,” Kissick says. “For every tusk you find, a matched pair would be a very small portion of the total take.”
The measurements given in the lot notes for the matched set of bull mammoth tusks–68 inches by 40 inches by 5 inches–are a little hard to understand. What do they describe? The number 68 describes the width of the tusks as they appear in the black display armature, which is visible in the picture. The 40-inch measurement corresponds to height, starting at the bottom of the armature and ending at the top of the tallest tusk. The 5-inch measurement should probably be five feet, because it describes the depth of the display from the front of the armature to the back.
You said that the tusks have “good color.” What does that mean here? “They have smooth whites, tans, and creams. The colors are sublime, not bright and bold like some of the others,” he says. “It’s a nice color palette that’s the result of how the tusks were actually fossilized.”
The lot notes say the matched set of bull mammoth tusksare in excellent condition. What does that mean when we’re talking about fossils? “With fossils, by their very nature, you’re not going to find what you’d call a perfect fossil,” he says, explaining that all fossils need at least some level of “preparation”, a term that covers repairs and restoration. “These tusks appear to have minimal restoration. There’s not a big chunk of the tip that had to be put back on. There are no cracks that had to be filled with putty or paint. These are in really good condition. That’s why they’re important and have a high valuation. They’ve been polished to make them the most presentable [they can be]. No matter how museum-quality it [a great fossil] is, there’s also a decorative quality that makes it amazing to put on display.”
In the foreground of the photo of the mammoth tusks, there’s a fluffy bunny with a carrot in front of it. Why? “It’s for scale,” he says. “Scale doesn’t always translate from your brain to your eyes. We usually put a brass ingot next to minerals, for context. For things that are really big, we’ve used babies, we’ve used kids, we’ve used people, we’ve used dogs.”
But why a fluffy bunny, this time, then? “The tusks are weird with the armature–it’s not easy for an adult or a child [to get in to the space between the tusks in a manner that works for the shot]. It’s easier to plop a bunny down there, and that’s what we did,” he says, explaining that the rabbit is the pet of a junior cataloger at Heritage Auctions. “For further whimsy, we threw the carrot in front of it, because it doesn’t look like a bunny, it looks like a beast. It behaved well enough not to hop off before we took the picture.”
I’d be tempted to tweak the lot notes to add a jokey reference that says the bunny and the carrot don’t come with the tusks. “People can get weird about it [what’s shown in catalog photos versus what’s actually part of the lot]. You’d be surprised,” he says. “We were half thinking of saying, ‘Rabbit not included.'”
How to bid: The matched set of bull mammoth tusks is lot #72194 in Heritage Auctions‘s Nature & Science Signature Auction in Dallas on November 4. As noted above, the rabbit and carrot are not included. Also know that if you live in New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, or California, your state’s laws prevent you from bidding on the tusks. See the lot notes for more.
Update: All ten prints from the Campbell’s Soup II set that Warhol gave to Dr. Rossi sold in the Christie’s auction. Lots 1 through 4 (lot 4 is shown above) and lots 6 through 8 each sold for $37,500. Lot 5 sold for $35,000. Lots 9 and 10, which were more faded, sold for $16,250 and $23,750, respectively.
What you see: A screenprint from Campbell’s Soup II, a limited edition series of 250 that Andy Warhol created in 1969. Warhol also made 26 artist’s proofs–sets reserved for his own use–and marked each with a letter. This print is from the ‘B’ set and it is lot 4 in an upcoming Christie’s sale. The auction house estimates it and seven others from the complete ‘B’ set at $18,000 to $25,000; two more from the same group are estimated at $10,000 to $15,000.
Who was Andy Warhol? Born as Andrew Warhola in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he is one of the most famous and influential artists of the 20th century. Like Picasso, he refused to confine himself to a single medium, taking on painting, printmaking, film, photography, rock band management, and creating books and magazines. The scene that evolved around his Manhattan studio, which he dubbed The Factory, became famous in its own right. A 1968 exhibition program for his work contained the words, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” a phrase that has become more prophetic over time. On June 3 of that year, Valerie Solanas, an outlier member of The Factory scene, attacked the artist at his studio, shooting him and a visiting art critic. Both survived, but Warhol nearly didn’t, having suffered injuries to several organs. Warhol lived for 19 more years, succumbing in 1987 in Manhattan after gallbladder surgery. He was 58.
Warhol created a lot of iconic images–the Mao portrait, the Brillo box, the Marilyn silkscreen–but his Campbell’s Soup can images might be the best-remembered of his works. Why? “It really gets back to the origin of Pop Art,” says Lindsay Griffith, specialist and head of sale for prints for Christie’s. “He played with the idea of what you already knew. You were so conditioned to see them [the soup cans] in a different context. You did not expect to see them in a gallery. He toggled back and forth between high and low constantly. He changed the nature of image production in the fine-art sense. It’s the purest expression of that.”
I was aware that Warhol had been shot in 1968, and I had seen the photos of him displaying his scar, but I had no idea how badly he was hurt. What happened? “He was actually declared clinically dead. Three bullets entered his chest and stomach. He lost a tremendous amount of blood,” she says. “Dr. Giuseppe Rossi was a chest and thoracic surgeon. He had handled quite a few gunshot victims because of what the neighborhood [of Columbus hospital, whose emergency room received Warhol,] was. He was talented with gunshot surgeries. Every account I have read shows, truly, he saved Warhol’s life. In reading his diaries, that’s how Warhol felt. The damage was incredibly extensive, and he was in pain for the rest of his life.”
It seems that Warhol could have done better with handling the bills that Dr. GiuseppeRossi sent. The doctor wrote “Pay up you blowhard” on the outside of one of them. And a story that Christie’s wrote on the ten lots includes an image of a check Warhol wrote to the doctor for $1,000, which bounced (scroll down to see it). Did the artist send the Campbell’s Soup II set of prints as payment for his treatment? “Rossi also became Warhol’s doctor for the rest of his life. That bill [the one Dr. Rossi wrote his message on] is potentially related to that,” she says, describing an ongoing relationship between the artist and the family that included Warhol sending Christmas gifts and sitting for an interview with Dr. Rossi’s young son for his middle school newspaper. “A number of people received the prints as gifts. They were really a gift, a gesture of gratitude,” Griffith says, and adds that Warhol asked for Rossi when he entered the hospital in 1987, but the family was vacationing out of the country. Warhol died before they came back. Dr. Rossi died in 2016.
The family consigned the full set of 10 prints to Christie’s, but you are selling them individually. Why? “We felt that was how they would perform best commercially,” she says, explaining that the Rossis stored eight of the prints in a box under a bed and displayed two. If you compare lots 9 and 10 to lots 1 through 8, which stayed in the dark from 1968 to now (scroll down a little to see the 10 lots as a group), you’ll spot the difference that UV light can make. “We wanted to emphasize the condition of those eight. Their colors are in exceptionally wonderful condition.”
Do the estimates for the ten prints reflect the value of the story of Andy Warhol and Dr. GiuseppeRossi? “We priced them because they are wonderful objects. We did not take the provenance into account at all,” she says. “But provenance is always an interesting X-factor at auction.”
Why will these lots stick in your memory? “This is one of my favorite stories from the last few years of being here at Christie’s,” Griffith says. “Rossi is directly responsible for continuing a tremendous career in 20th century art. It’s a story we’re privileged to be a part of, and we encourage everyone to come and see the prints. They look absolutely amazing in our gallery. They’re meant to be looked at.”
How to bid: The set of Campbell’s Soup II prints given by Warhol to Dr. Rossi are lots 1 through 10 in the Prints and Multiples sale at Christie’s New York on October 24 and 25.
What you see: A Bounty Hunter dune buggy, completed in 1969. It has 45,000 miles on its odometer, and it has a manual transmission. Los Angeles Modern Auctions estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
What is a dune buggy? It’s a recreational off-road vehicle designed for use on beaches, deserts, and dunes, hence the name ‘dune buggy.’ It descends from the VW Beetle, a car with a chassis that was light enough to drive on sand. Dune buggies were primarily kit cars, which means that someone would buy the kit and build the car themselves or have other people do it for them. The cars had their heyday from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, when lawmakers realized it probably wasn’t a good idea to let drivers tear across delicate shoreline ecosystems with abandon.
Why is this one called a Bounty Hunter dune buggy? The name is a nod to Steve McQueen’s Western show, Wanted: Dead or Alive, which ran in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He played a bounty hunter. Apparently, one of the dune buggy’s designers met McQueen and helped him when the star ran out of gas.
How do you choose the cars that you auction at LAMA? “We’re looking for something special,” he says. “It’s not necessary to sell it to a car person, but it’s important that a car person looks at it and gets it. It has to do both–it has to excite the design people and a car person can’t look at it and say, ‘Why this one?”
Dune buggies were kit cars, which means the people who bought them built the car or had someone else do it. Why does this example stand out? “The original owner is a figure in the custom car world,” Loughrey says. “When he built it in 1968, he knew what he was doing. This really is the ultimate dune buggy. He custom-built the best example that could be built around this body.”
I also understand that the Bounty Hunter dune buggy is street-legal, while most dune buggies are not? “Because he’s a professional builder and wanted to build the ultimate dune buggy, he wanted to drive it to the dunes and drive it back [instead of towing it],” he says. “He had the headlamps built into the body. The turn signals and rear lamps are from a 1964 Corvette body. He never liked the Jeep-style windshield on other dune buggies, so he took the windshield from a 1964 Renault. He knew every detail was going to make a good, fun vehicle to drive.”
This car is described as being ‘mint.’ What does that mean in this context? “Maybe that’s not the right word. It’s more like a flawless survivor,” he says, explaining that the only parts that aren’t original are the radio and a set of speakers that were installed in the 1980s. “It shows very little wear. The original [fiber] glass body was gel-coated. It has its original gel coat. It has all-original pin-striping that hasn’t been touched since 1968. He [its creator] knew it was a special car, and not a daily driver. It was a work of art, always.”
Is the Bounty Hunter dune buggydrivable? Have you driven it? Yes, and no. “These things have to be usable,” he says. “A Picasso vase–you can use it. I won’t, but I can use it. An Eames chair–you can sit on it. If you say oh, it’s not functional anymore, you cut out a large reason for buying it.” But Loughrey had yet to drive the dune buggy during the week that he did this interview–the brakes were being replaced. “If I sell it to a museum, I’ll be the last one to drive it,” he says.
What else stands out about the Bounty Hunter dune buggy? “Anytime we have a car, it always stands out. The little kid in me loves that we’ve got a dune buggy in our showroom,” he says. “People have asked me for years what our next car will be, and I’d said, ‘maybe a dune buggy.’ I’ve been beating the bushes for several years. When I saw it, it was love at first sight. It was exactly what I wanted–not restored, not repainted. It was 100 percent original.”
Update: The 19th century French life-size articulated wooden artist’s mannequin sold for $45,000.
What you see: A life-size articulated wooden artist’s mannequin, made in France, dating to around 1860, and measuring about 60 inches tall. Rago Auctions estimates it at $20,000 to $25,000.
If you were an artist in the 19th century and could afford a life-size articulated wooden mannequin, couldn’t you afford to hire a live model instead? “Possibly, but live models were not always available. And a mannequin can hold a pose forever. It’s almost more posable than a real person,” says Marion Harris, a specialist in antique mannequins and curator of the Curiouser and Curiouser sale for Rago. “Life-size artist’s mannequins were expensive, and they were valued in their own right. They became something of worth in an artist’s inventory. Mannequins were often listed in the estates of artists when they died.”
How many life-size artist’s mannequins have you dealt with? How many are known? Harris says she has handled 15 to 20 over the last quarter-century. She suspects that maybe as many as 100 were made between the 16th and 19th centuries, and as many as half might survive. “They’re just about always androgynous,” she says. “I’ve looked at the same one and seen it as male, then seen it as female.”
Would one artisan have carved the face, and other artisans have carved the rest of the body? “I don’t know how they did it, but it’s likely. Four or five ateliers were known for carving them. Even the bad mannequins are very good. It’s so hard to do,” she says. “This mannequin has a particular sensitivity to the carving. It’s so lifelike.”
Ribs were carved into the mannequin’s torso. Why? “That’s another sign of quality, when the ribs are evident,” she says. “You do want to see the ribs, if you can. It lets the piece look more realistic. Without the ribs, it looks more puppet-like. Anything that gives the mannequin a more realistic human quality to its features makes it more efficient and effective for the artist.”
Does the life-size artist’s mannequin have a patina? “It has a brilliant patina–not just from being handled, but from age. It glows with pride as well as age, I like to say,” she says.
How much does the life-size artist’s mannequin weigh? About 100 pounds. “I could almost carry it. But it would have been on a stand. Once it’s on a stand, it’s completely posable,” she says. “It’s almost like a real person.”
People might know the life-size artist’s mannequin from the Manhattan shop window of Ann-Morris. How did you convince the shop’s owners to consign it? “Everybody wanted to buy it. They would rent it to films, but they would never sell it. Now that the son has taken over the business, I finally got him to part with it,” she says. “It’s a fitting way to part with it. They wanted to give it a rather grand farewell. They’ve had others, but this one was always the queen.” (Harris later confirmed that though the mannequin had appeared in the window since the 1970s, the family never gave it a name, surprising as that might seem.)
What else makes the life-size artist’s mannequin special? “I’ve seen other mannequins. This one almost calls out to you to say, ‘Touch me, love me, hold me, pose me, care for me. I’m here for you and you’re here for me,'” she says. “Even people who’ve never seen it before stop in their tracks. And a number of people would have seen it and looked at it adoringly [when it was in the Ann-Morris window].”
Update: The Lalique Tortues vase sold for $25,000.
What you see: A Tortues (Turtles) vase by the French glass master and entrepreneur René Lalique, rendered in amber glass with a hand-applied white patina. It was designed in 1926 and produced between 1926 and 1945, when Lalique died. Rago Arts and Auctions estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
This Laliquevase was made from amber glass. Why does it look ruby red, then? “It does come across that way. Without light penetrating them, the colors on a Lalique vase can look different, definitely the darker colors,” says David Rago of Rago Arts and Auctions. “My understanding is this is the best of them. You don’t see this color in many pieces to begin with. The patina brings out some of the detailing.”
How rare is this Lalique vase? Rago can only recall handling one other example, which was also a dark amber. His auction house sold it for $34,000 in 2006. While it was in production for almost 20 years, not many were made, probably because of the thickness of the glass and the unusual bulging shape.
How does its relatively large size (10 1/2 inches by 9 1/2 inches) enhance the Lalique vase’s value? “The larger vases were not made in great numbers. It’s not a massive piece, but it’s bigger than a lot of them,” says Rago. “It’s a statement piece of Lalique.”
What else makes this Lalique vase special? “Glass can be feminine by nature. I find this to be a fairly masculine piece in the form, the size, the weight of it, and the design,” says Rago. “It’s not a soft pink. It’s not a particularly pretty color. Instead of being fluid and curvilinear, this is heavy, large, and thick. Most of his vases tend not to have that type of strength. And it’s big, it’s rare, and it’s in perfect condition. If you have a checklist for a major molded piece of Lalique, you have it all.”
What you see: The Olympic gold medal awarded to John Haskell “Tex” Gibbons for his role in propelling the United States basketball team to victory in 1936. Gibbons was 28 at the time. The medal is double-sided and gold-plated and measures just over two inches in diameter. It comes with a letter of authenticity from his family and ephemera that he gathered on his Berlin adventure. Grant Zahajko estimates the 1936 Olympic basketball gold medal at $100,000 to $150,000.
Who was John Haskell “Tex” Gibbons? He was a 6’1″ inch guard who played professional basketball years before the NBA arrived. He was on the team at Southwestern College, in Winfield, Kan., and moved on to the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), playing for the McPherson Globe Oilers. He earned his nickname from the state where he was raised. He died in 1984 at the age of 76.
Why was the 1936 US Olympic basketball team important? “1936 was the first time basketball was an Olympic event,” Zahajko says, adding that more than 20 countries fielded teams and James Naismith, creator of the game, then 74, crowned the winning team with laurels.
What did the Americans have to do to win? “Hitler was not aware of basketball and didn’t give it much recognition. He built gyms, but he didn’t build one for basketball. They played on lawn tennis courts,” he says. “They played [the Olympic final] in a downpour. They couldn’t dribble. They could only pass. It was a low-scoring game.” The U.S. squelched its way to the gold, defeating Canada 19-8.
Are Olympic medals from 1936 more valuable than those from other years? “1936 medals are very sought-after, even gold medals with no attribution,” he says, referring to those that come to market without related material that proves who earned them. “It’s because of the importance of that Olympics, and how tense and charged it was. Hitler promised not to push his [regime-glorifying] campaign, but he did not hold to that.”
How many other 1936 Olympic basketball gold medals have you handled? “Only three from the 14-man team have ever surfaced, and I’ve had the privilege of touching all three,” he says, alluding to having appraised them. One went to auction at another venue in 2015. It commanded $67,000 despite suffering heavy wear that included having a hole drilled at the top so it could be worn as a necklace. The Gibbons medal is in far better condition. “It’s no longer in its original box, but it’s been well-cared for,” Zahajko says.
Update: The Russian silver and champlevé-enamel cockerel-form covered presentation cup sold for $33,800.
What you see: A Russian silver and champlevé-enamel cockerel-form (aka rooster-form) covered presentation cup, made in St. Petersburg in the late 19th century. Freeman’s estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
This Russian silver rooster cup is believed to be a wedding gift. Why would a rooster be an appropriate motif for a couple who are getting married? “The rooster symbolizes a new day, and it symbolizes good news. That’s why it’s an appropriate wedding gift,” says Nicholas B.A. Nicholson, who leads the English and Continental furniture and decorative arts department for Freeman’s, which covers silver. He adds, “It’s a tradition of the family [who owned it] that it was a wedding gift. We stop short of saying it was a wedding gift because we don’t have a letter saying that, but we have no reason to disagree.”
Silversmith Alexander Nikolaevich Sokolov designed the Russian silver rooster cup, and the lot notes say it is “likely derived” from an illustration in a popular Russian book from the time, Antiquities of the Russian State. Was Sokolov trying to evoke the medieval-style illustration? “He’s making as realistic a cockerel as he can given the design of medieval Russian works,” he says.
What’s up with the rooster’s tail? It’s a good example of what Nicholson means when he talks about Sokolov balancing realism against the medieval sensibility of the book’s illustrations: “The tail devolves from natural feathers, to braided feathers in a strapwork pattern, to strapwork on the tail–an amazing deconstruction.”
Did Sokolov’s workshop do other rooster-shaped presentation cups? “He did others earlier, but they were not as fully evolved as this one,” Nicholson says. “We don’t know how many he made, but it was clearly a form he liked.”
It’s a presentation cup, so you’re not really supposed to drink from it. But if you wanted to, how would you do it? See the broad band around the top of the rooster’s body? The hinge is in there. The head and neck of the silver bird tilts backwards, and the comb rests on its tail.
This Russian silver rooster cupis fresh to market, directly from the descendants of the people who received it. How unusual is that? “Many things that have been sold were confiscated by the Russian government,” he says. “This was brought over by the family and preserved through the generations to be offered at auction for the first time.”
What else makes the Russian silver rooster cup special? “It’s such an extraordinary piece of silver,” he says. “We have lots of good silver in this sale, and they all have their own stories, but this piece… the story makes it exceptional. So many Russian objects are just stolen. It transferred from an old Russian family [that became] a Russian emigre family and [then became] an American family of Russian descent, who wants it to go to a collector who understands its value.”
Update: The Nakashima Sanso table with Conoid chairs sold for $187,500.
What you see: A Sanso “Reception House” table and six Conoid chairs, designed and made by George Nakashima in 1981. The table is 28 inches high, 60 inches wide, and 84 1/2 inches in diameter. All seven pieces are signed with the surname of the client. Freeman’s estimates the group at $100,000 to $150,000.
Who was George Nakashima? He was an American woodworker who became one of the most influential furniture-makers of the 20th century. Born to Japanese immigrants, Nakashima had traveled extensively in Japan by the time he was forced into an internment camp in Idaho during World War II. There he met an inmate who taught him Japanese carpentry techniques. Architect Antonin Raymond helped free Nakashima in 1943 and invited him to stay in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Nakashima never left. He developed a style that respected and celebrated the rugged, natural aspects of wood, and which turned its flaws into strengths. He died in 1990 at the age of 85.
Why are George Nakashima Sanso tables so rare? Was it difficult for him to find suitable pieces of lumber? “It was tough to get really good slabs of wood at this size,” says Tim Andreadis, department head of 20th century design at Freeman’s, adding that fewer than a dozen Sanso tables exist. “Finding a board that was conducive to this purpose was more difficult and more costly. This one is a really nice English walnut, which is what the client wanted.”
The table comes with six Conoid chairs. Is this the full original set of chairs? Yes. “What’s really nice about them is they’re single slab seats,” he says. “Single slab seats were three times more expensive to purchase. They’re usually better-quality wood, and they’re all very even in color. There’s a nice contrast between the American black walnut chairs and the English walnut Sanso table.”
We know the client for the George Nakashima Sanso tablewas Stanley Frosh and his family. What do we know about the Froshes? “They [the furniture] were made as a set and originally used in Stanley’s judge’s chambers before moving them to his home as a reception-slash-dining table for the family to use,” Andreadis says. “The Frosh family was extremely close to the Nakashimas. When George passed, the whole [Nakashima] family sat around this table to discuss the future of the George Nakashima studio. It did become a table around which big decisions were made.”
This George Nakashima Sanso table has several butterfly joints in it–bow-tie like fittings that help hold the tabletop together. Did Nakashima invent the butterfly joint, or did he make it his own? “Butterfly joints were used for centuries, but he made them his own,” Andreadis says. “They were used on the undersides of furnishings. You didn’t see butterfly joints. George respected the honesty of the construction process, and he wanted to make it visible. He thought it was something to be celebrated rather than hidden.”
Does the large number of butterfly joints increase the value of the table? “That’s definitely true,” he says. “It shows that George wanted to preserve the piece of lumber. In order to do that, he needed to use more butterfly joints to shore up the piece of wood. He didn’t put them on willy-nilly as a decoration. The joints prevented splits in areas that would have split over time. George worked through all the problems. He didn’t put a Band-Aid on them. He embellished them and drew your eye to them.”
And has the George Nakashima Sanso table held together well? What condition is it in? “It’s in fantastic condition,” he says. “The family always recognized it as a masterpiece, and revered it as such, and treated it as such. George made it later in his career, in the sweet spot between the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when he was catching his stride and reflecting what his design ethos was about. It’s a beautiful thing to behold in person.”
A Paris auction house sold a George Nakashima Sanso table in American black walnut, without chairs, for roughly $207,000 in May. Do you think this suite of Nakashima furniture will do better? “I think it certainly has that potential. It’s one of the most dramatic Sanso tables to come to market. Even if it was just the table, I’d gush about it. It’s absolutely a blue-chip masterwork by George Nakashima,” he says. “To have Mira [George’s daughter, who now leads the studio] and the family’s memory at a pivotal point in the studio’s history speaks even further to the history with the Frosh family, and to why George chose a special table for Stanley Frosh. We have the climax point where George dies, and they talk about the studio’s future [around this table.] It could not only set a record for a Sanso table, it could set a record for any George Nakashima.”
What else makes this George Nakashima Sanso table special? “If you’ve been waiting for a special piece by Nakashima, this is that type of piece. It will transcend market shifts over the years,” he says. “And you can look at it time after time and not get bored. I’ve been looking at it for four months and every time, I find something new. You get chills standing near it. A Nakashima like this belongs in a museum or a private collection. One lucky bidder will get to own this table, and I envy them.”
How to bid: The George Nakashima Frosh family Sanso table and its six Conoid chairs are lot 81 in the Design sale at Freeman’s on October 8, 2017.
Update: Elizabeth Catlett’s War Worker sold for $149,000–a new auction record for a painting by the artist.
What you see:War Worker, a 1943 tempera-on-board by Elizabeth Catlett. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $60,000 to $90,000.
Who was Elizabeth Catlett? She was a 20th century African-American artist. She was best known for her sculptures, but she made prints and the occasional painting as well. She devoted herself to creating images that reflected the African-American experience. During the 1960s, she created a series of posters that depicted Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Harriet Tubman. She also created sculptures of Sojourner Truth and Louis Armstrong. She was active until she died in 2012 at the age of 96.
What makes War Worker so notable? “It’s very scarce. It’s only the second painting of hers to come to auction,” says Nigel Freeman, director of Swann’s African-American fine art department, adding that it dates to a period in the 1940s when the artist lived in New York. Swann offered the first Catlett painting at auction in December 2015. Titled Friends, it sold for $81,250 against an estimate of $30,000 to $40,000.
Why have so few of these Elizabeth Catlett paintings come to auction? Are they in institutions? “The works are just very scarce. They’ve been in people’s collections for a generation or more,” he says, adding that Friends did go to an institutional buyer. “Catlett passed not too long ago. There’s a growing sense of her significance that’s bringing the paintings to market. If you look at Friends, it’s definitely related to War Worker. Both are images of African-American workers.”
War Worker is smaller than 12 inches by 10 inches. Most of the known 1940s Elizabeth Catlett paintings are on the small side, and rendered in tempera. Do we know why? “She didn’t have a studio in the traditional sense. She had to work during the day at her teaching job,” he says, explaining his theory that Catlett may have made War Worker in her apartment, sitting down, perhaps with the paper in her lap. She might have chosen tempera for this reason, too–it doesn’t smell or give off fumes, as oil paints do. “It’s conducive to working in a non-studio environment,” he says. “The small size reinforces the intimacy of these works.”
Does Elizabeth Catlett approach the painting in a sculptural way? Does it hint at her future as a sculptor? “It’s a fascinating glimpse into her work as a modern artist,” he says. “She shows an interest in depicting average working men and women as a social realist. She’s also interested in abstracting the sculptural qualities of his face, flattening the forms. There’s a sculptural quality you see that comes forward in her work, which is interesting in view of her development as an artist.”
War Worker is estimated at $60,000 to $90,000. Do you think it has a chance to top Friends and set a new record for an Elizabeth Catlett painting at auction? “I think this will do very well, and could sell for more,” he says.
What else makes War Worker special? “It’s a really powerful image. These small paintings pack a punch,” Freeman says. “The accumulation of small strokes gives it an intensity. I think it’s going to resonate with the people who see it. We are excited to have it.”